By Doug Farmer  

We live in an age of quick offenses as semantics become pointed attacks or, phrased less elegantly, words become fights. Everybody is encouraged to be offended and demand apologies without pause.

As much as Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose”) and William Shakespeare (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”) may like to think otherwise, there is something in a name. Kresge rebranded to become Kmart. Dayton’s eventually morphed into Target. In due time, Northern States Power merged to grow into Xcel Energy. Business purposes saw more value in one name over another.

The current student body at my alma mater, George Washington University, apparently also sees value in a name change, though their logic is vague and inaccurate at best. Their vote to change the university’s nickname to something less offensive than “Colonials” came to my attention on April 1. Not understanding who that could possibly offend, I assumed it an April Fools’ Day joke. A day later, The Wall Street Journal confirmed the news as real, although an April Fools’ prank would have been more understandable and appropriate.

The offenses worried over by these particular semantics focus on disease, genocide and subjugation. The student body ignores the fact that these offenses would be more accurately attributed to the colonialists, not the colonials. A subtle difference, but still a very real one.

The colonialists were those who came, settled, expanded and possibly did all that they are accused of today. The colonials were the brave and reckless souls who revolted against the British Empire. It was the colonials, and namely Washington himself, who history claims wore the Blue-and-Buff uniforms memorialized today as the university’s colors.

It is easy, 250 years later, to overlook the colonials’ risks. While the English enjoy the polished image of civilized opponents, there were still massacres of civilians and unarmed surrendering colonial soldiers, entire towns torched and the promise of a hangman’s noose for George Washington and other prominent “colonials.”

Even if the three-letter distinction is too close for comfort, it is not as if it is the name of the university. Its namesake brings a certain degree of clarity. The “Colonials” nickname matters most when it comes to sports, where George Washington University has never been much of an icon. Football was abandoned in the 1960s. Focusing on basketball, the Colonials have just one March Madness victory in the last 25 years.

When the George Mason Patriots made their improbable run to the Final Four in 2006, many of my friends congratulated me. Apparently, one George is like another. I made no attempt to correct them. If you are a Colonial fan, the Patriots are as good as it gets. One could even argue one is the other, outside of sports.

What’s in a name? For my alma mater, it is an assumption of moral purity that is inaccurate, misguided and all too convenient to fit in with the modern outrage era. All so often the case when dealing in revisionist history.

Doug Farmer has worked at Park Bank since 1981 and spent 15 years on the State of Wisconsin Banking Review Board. He’s lived in La Crosse since 1971. You can reach him at

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